By Terry Trucco
At a glance: The Benjamin, an imposing 1920s brick tower across the street from the Waldorf Astoria, is a friendly reminder that the traditional hotel virtues – a great bed, attention to service, classic décor – never go out of style. The hotel is neither trendy nor hip and doesn’t try to be. But it lobs comfort at you the moment you enter its sleek brown lobby.
The pillow menu originated here (12 flavors, including NASA memory foam, buckwheat and satin). Pets are welcome (dog beds are available). A kitchenette comes with every room (the hotel is mostly suites). And complimentary coffee is served all day in the soaring, spotless lobby — all marble, mirrors and lavish cornices. The Benjamin channels hints of its 1920s past but feels contemporary.
Though the hotel has just over 200 rooms, it feels like a small hotel in the best sense of the word. Velvet sofas and fresh flowers help humanize the high-ceiling lobby. And the uniformed staff are among the friendliest and most helpful in town.
Rooms: Comfort wafts up to the rooms, which are serene and well maintained, but, depending on your sensibilities, bland (how many shades of white can you cram into one space?). Most are ample one-bedroom suites with sleep sofas in the living rooms, adjoining bedrooms and clever little kitchenettes. Even the basic rooms and studios come, as do suites, with these well-equipped mini kitchens (full-size fridge, sink, microwave and china in the cupboard, all new, so you can eat in if you please).
Beds, dressed in Anichini 500-count sheets and toppings, are big, luxurious and piled to the rafters with pillows. Lamps with crystal bases perch atop the traditional wood bedside tables. Desks are large, solid and ready for business. And new flatpanel TVs have replaced the old crop of boxy tube TVs.
Suites can be quite spacious. Several open onto spectacular terraces overlooking Lexington Avenue, complete with views of the Chrysler Building and outdoor furnishings for alfresco drinks or dining.
Food and drink: Opened in 2010, The National, aka The NTL, is a buzzy, busy Midtown restaurant and bar owned by Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, host of Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons. Chic black-and-white bistro decor — cocoa brown leather banquettes, lightly distressed wood tables, white walls with gently antiqued mirrors — creates an inviting backdrop for Zakarian’s contemporary American offerings.
Nearly every table was taken when I breakfasted at 10 am on a weekday. I sat between a French-speaking couple and two women discussing an internet business and tucked into a delicious beef hash topped with a fried egg and mushrooms ($14). Strong coffee ($4) was served with warm, frothed milk. Lunch, which includes a spare but tasty Salad Nicoise ($18), attracts locals from nearby offices and gets crowded. If lunch is in your plans, be sure to reserve a table and cross your fingers for a good one. A friend and I were stuck in what felt like a hallway.
Amenities: The Benjamin is eager to please and piles the amenities on. The hotel has a much-written-about “sleep concierge,” who can help you choose a pillow, lend you a white noise machine and send up milk and cookies at bedtime. The 24-hour gym is spacious and well-equipped with flatscreen TVs. The Federico Hair and Spa, operated by hair wizard Federico Calce, offers styling, manicures, pedicures, waxing. make-up and a variety of massages. Pets are not only allowed but courted with a menu of accouterments like dog beds, canine treats and a list of pet-friendly restaurants (guests are required to pay a $100 per day deposit, refundable if there’s no damage). WiFi ($9.95 a day) but free in The National restaurant and bar. Comp shoe shine.
Surroundings: A great location if you want Midtown. Lexington Avenue in the 40s consists of boring office buildings, but it’s studded with hotels, nice if you want to try out a different bar or breakfast spot. Grand Central Station, Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art, Saks Fifth Avenue and preppy haberdashers including Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart are steps away. Times Square and the Theater District are a brisk walk or crosstown bus ride away. Central Park, Bloomingdales and the renowned Morgan Museum and Library are easily accessible. Bus stops and the subway station are nearby.
Back story: Opened two years before the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the Benjamin started life as the Beverly, a stylish brick tower designed by architect Emery Roth, known for luxury apartment buildings such as the Beresford as well as the Belleclaire and Warwick hotels. Over the years this 1920s pile lost its panache. It was still the Beverly when I first stayed here in the early 1990s, and although prices were low, the rooms were worn out. In 1997, the hotel was purchased by Affinia Hospitality, then known as Manhattan East Suite Hotels, closed for a major makeover (bye-bye window air-conditioners, hello central heating/cooling) and reopened in 1999, rechristened the Benjamin after Affinia founder Benjamin J. Denihan Sr. (note the portrait over the reception desk), who made a killing in dry cleaning before trying his hand at hospitality. Between 2010 and 2011 the hotel’s public rooms underwent a grand-scale renovation resulting in a glamorous updated lobby and a much-improved bistro-style restaurant and bar.
Keep in mind: Rooms can be noisy due to street sounds.